the Cover illo of For-Print VersionNOVELS PAGE

still Friday, Halgary 19th

09. A Briefing for the PSF

A drab room with drab furniture hovered between light and shadow as evening rain clouds gathered. Oscar Brooks tugged at his black moustache, then he decided to stop straining his eyes. A crack divided the white plastic case of the light switch. It clicked sluggishly, telling of a decaying mechanism and rotting wiring. The bulb was dim, suggesting imminent extinction. An annoying flicker tugged at his peripheral vision as Brooks gave his attention back to the map on the folding table. Two camping chairs were the only other furniture.
   A faint, sliding click reached him from the hall. Brooks identified the sound as a key entering the lock on the front door. Then came a dry scrape of a brush draft-excluder across bare boards. Denton and Murphy barged into his room, Murphy shoving Denton through the door from the hall, telling him that he was a rotten driver. His companion had a more than complete answer to all charges.
   "Right, you two," said Brooks at a volume to rival that of his colleagues. "They'll hear you at Prot HQ."
   Denton and Murphy mouthed ritual obscenities. The Popular Socialist Front was never popular with the police, and the feeling was mutual. Murphy had hated the police since his arrest for joy-riding at the age of eleven. He had been big for his age. A month-old parking fine was still a sore point with Denton.
   "Let's get on," added Brooks. His colleagues were late and he was in a hurry to get home for his evening meal. The more time he spent with them, the less there would be for a pint of fortbeer on the way home.
   All three gathered round the map on the table. A diagram of the Mirbank Refuse Reclamation Centre had been added to a large-scale map of the coastal city. Their decaying suburb lay in the bottom left corner of the map.
   The object of the night's demonstration was to prove to Sir Miles Dunstan that his defences were paper-thin. Shielded by a fighting force of NeoKirlans, Denton, Murphy and two others were to blow a hole in the roof of the incinerator plant. They would then deliver ten canisters of dense, green smoke chemicals, along with a note advising the Refuse Barons to expect explosives next time.
   "How many have you got?" said Brooks.
   NeoKirlans were not the most reliable of troops. Frustrated, hopeless or just bored with their existence, they could reverse without warning a firm decision to end it all in an orgy of blood and destruction. In death, they played out a fantasy version of the thousand-year-old nightmare created by a warrior tribe from the retion which had become modern Kraagen.
   The original Kirlans had rampaged round the Inland Sea for a century – by horseback, on land and by sneaking up rivers in a sea-going fleet of shallow-draught boats. They had been hunted to extinction eventually by an unprecedented multi-national force created by an extraordinary series of truces agreed by their victims.
   "I reckon we can count on a dozen bodies," said Denton. "Maybe a few more."
   "What have you done with them?" said Brooks.
   "Some in the Ultimatum Club, the rest at Molly's."
   "As long as they're not having a free blast at our expense," said Brooks sourly. He tapped the map half a scale mile from the sea front. "There's late shopping up and down this bit of Yord Street, so there will be plenty of people about till twenty or half-past. This place closes at half-sixteen on a Friday, though." He pointed to a green cross in the middle of a block. "Bert Shaw will have everything ready for you."
   "What about the weather?" Denton eyed the darkness beyond the grimy window.
   "The latest forecast is rain in the next hour, then cloudy but dry for the rest of the night," said Brooks. "The drinks in the assembly room have been doped with time-dilation drugs, so you won't have to worry about keeping the NeoKirlans quiet. Two hours will go like ten minutes. One final point – you two will carry the smoke bombs and the explosives. On no account are the NKs to be allowed near the explosives, clear?"
   Denton and Murphy nodded automatically.
   "The jamblers for the centre's surveillance system have an independent power supply in case they cut the local supply. This green line is your recommended route across the roofs to the incinerator plant. Now, is there anything you want to ask me?" Brooks' tone was that of a man willing to help but with very little time to spare.
   Denton and Murphy were torn briefly between uncertainty and a desire to seem efficient and all-knowing.
   The competent image won. "Piece of piss," said Murphy as he scratched his chin. Several curly, black hairs fell from his beard. He blew them away from the map automatically, long accustomed to dealing with such minor annoyances.
   "Good!" said Brooks. "Start things off as close to twenty-two hours as you can. What time do you make it now?"
   The trio synchronized watches on 17:43:00.
   "We've arranged a couple of diversions to give the Prots plenty to think about," Brooks concluded. "And one final point – some of our people work at this reclamation centre. So just smoke into the incinerator plant, right? No shooting the place up or anything like that. We don't want to put our maccars out of a job, do we?"
   "That would be rotten," grinned Murphy.
   "Right, I'll leave you to it." Brooks sketched a left-handed salute and headed for the door.
   He had known Denton and Murphy for almost a year, and they had become regular drinking companions. Brooks left the house with feelings of mild regret. He believed that Denton and Murphy stood less than an even chance of escaping arrest. But the cause was more important than a few years in gaol. And his companions had seemed confident enough behind a blend of excitement and the janglers.
   With the detachment of someone whose liberty was not measured in hours, he saluted their probable sacrifice, then he turned his thoughts to the pleasant task of deciding where to stop for his pre-dinner drink.
   "Get the beer out," said Denton in the abandoned house, intent on the map.
   Murphy took two large cans from his shoulder bag. He shook one and set it on the table. Black stubble on Denton's cheerfully ugly face creased into a grin of anticipation. He was ready for a drink. Murphy moved over to the window to inspect the clouds. His can hissed open. Murphy took a long swallow, then he remarked, "Cheers, maccar!"
   "Yeah, cheers," said Denton. He hauled back the ring on his can. A foaming tide gushed out, converting Dewsbury Street into a river and flooding the Refuse Reclamation Centre.
   "You bockan sobok!" howled Denton.
   Murphy laughed and ducked out of the way of a beer shower from his friend's hand. He dropped onto one of the camping chairs as Denton was blotting the map dry with a handkerchief.
   "What's this say?" Murphy tapped a line of cramped script, frowning behind his dense beard.
   "Looks like sol-something heat-something," said Denton.
   "Right. That side of the roof faces south-east. It'll be where they test solar heating panels. We'll have to keep well clear of there. A couple of rounds of explosive shot and there'll be glass everywhere."
   "Priyam!" agreed Denton. "Not that our NeoKirlans will be bothered about something as minor as that. Mad soboks."
   "That's the one think I don't like. I've heard stories about these NKs. Some of them can go right off the edge."
   "Which is why we'll be wearing tin helmets with nice, big plumes, just like them. And they're out to get themselves killed in a shooting match with the Prots, not each other. All we have to do is hang back, then let off the orange smoke for cover. As long as we keep out heads down, we'll be all right."
   "Why not the big, green smoke bombs for that too?"
   "Didn't you listen to Bert Shaw? The small ones don't have a delay fuse and they shove their smoke out faster. So we can get cover right where and when we need it."
   "Just testing," protested Murphy. "We'll be able to get to the club for a game of twenty-ones after."
   "That's all you ever think about," groaned Denton.
   "Oh, I don't know." Murphy gave his friend a knowing leer.
   "Want another can?"
   Denton and Murphy hurled their empties to join some anonymous junk in a corner at the back of the room. Armed with fresh cans, they settled down to the task of planning the last details of the operation. The light in the room took on a more pronounced yellow tinge. Wind-driven liquid pellets hammered against the window as black clouds drifted westwards from the Inland Sea to put Mirbank's suburbs through the forecast street-wash.

10. Sovershend Meets Sandy

Devrel Sovershend aimed the controller at his holovision set, thumb on the off panel. A projection of the newsreader on Twenty-One Update shimmered into a mirror. The chirping, call noise made by the videolink ceased as Sovershend zapped it with the remote controller.
   "Thought you might still be there," said Martin's voice. A large, red dot appeared in the middle of the screen to confirm that Martin had inhibited the visual circuit at his end of the line. "Someone wants words with you. Going anywhere near the Museum Club tonight?"
   "I could," said Sovershend cautiously. "Why?"
   "Because that's where he's going to be looking for you."
   "Good sort of fellow, is he?" Sovershend put a coded question to establish the third party's line of business as well as his credentials, The importing business was a frail structure built on trust. Those involved in it were reluctant to deal with strangers.
   "Serpently, he's all right." Martin confirmed that they were discussing a trustworthy fellow smuggler. "I've known him for a few months now. So you're interested?"
   "No harm in listening. How do I find him?"
   "He'll find you. I described your 'orrible self to him."
   "Oh?" said Sovershend suspiciously. "What did you say?"
   "About six foot, looks half starved, blond hair needing a comb and usually looks like he's been lynched by 'lensters because he goes to the Ten Thumb Tailor's..."
   "I think I'll wear a name badge," interrupted Sovershend. "Right, I might just scand over there."
   The red dot vanished. Sovershend found his car keys. His vehicle was garaged on the other side of the alley, behind a steel-shutter door. Light traffic allowed him to thread a rapid path eastwards. He ran into a solid jam just before Park Avenue became Grove Road at one corner of Walton Park.
   Sovershend realized that he was stuck when a set of traffic lights turned green and his line of vehicles stayed put. The citizens' radio bands were alive with chatter but no one seemed to know what was happening.
   A CSP Special Service patrol car raced past on the wrong side of the road. It turned right into Barongate Road, a broad artery, followed closely by three fire engines. A faint crackle in the distance could have been small-arms fire. Confused shouting on the radio blotted out information from those in a position to see anything.
   Three more Special Service patrol cars zoomed past the line of stationary vehicles. The gold-on-dark-green unit markings identified them as belonging to Five Troop, which was based at the new police station at Rodwell Road. A hammering of concussive grenades ended the gun battle.
   The traffic began to crawl forward almost immediately, directed by two troopers in full riot gear. Sovershend took a full minute to cross the four lanes of Barongate Road. He saw a burnt-out van about fifty yards down on the right. It straddled the central white line, pointing toward a merry blaze, which lit an area with wrecked street lights.
   Flames billowed from the shattered windows of a tall building. Solid pillars of smoke supported the clouded, darkening sky. Bright yellow-clad figures trailed white hoses into the fire. Special Service Troopers were pushing dazed prisoners into line to be searched, back-lit by the blaze. Two ambulance crews were busy beside still figures. Bright flashes seared the ground-hugging smoke haze as press and police photographers captured the scene. A mob of spectators was gathering, eager for diversion. Then brick walls sliced away the spectacle.
   Sovershend made a right turn, heading for a car stack on the former site of the National Museum. He spiralled up to the thirteenth level. Ignoring the Level Full sign, he drove down the aisle to the end. A left turn took him into open space. He pressed his membership disc to sensor hidden behind the loop of the first e in Level 13. After a delay of several seconds, part of the wall retreated and slid to the right. Sovershend stepped into the Museum Club's entry porch. A steel door smashed shut behind him.
   The club extended over three levels at the heart of a sixteen-storey car stack. There were no signs to bring in passing trade and it was never mentioned in the clubs 'n' pubs section of the capital city's entertainments guide. Its existence remained an open secret among its members, current and former staff and thousands of guests. The Museum Club was founded on the sound principle that people love to be part of a select group.
   An inner door opened when the weapons snooper was satisfied that Sovershend was unarmed. He had left his sleeve needler in his car. If there was any trouble at the club, the management preferred to avoid shooting trouble. About two dozen people were spread around the main room when Sovershend made his entrance. A diffuse rumble of voices told him that something was happening on one of the other levels.
   The man behind the long bar knew Sovershend by sight. Setting aside the day's racing results, he kicked his wheeled chair up the bar, taking an ornate pint mug from a shelf in passing.
   "Cheers, Willy!" Sovershend exchanged three oval coins for a pint of fortified light without expecting change. "Any idea what's happening on Barongate Road?"
   Willy shrugged. "Just 'lensters scrapping over territory. One lot trapped some others in that half-demolished hospital then set fire to it. Maybe the rest's fell down by now."
   "Saved the taxpayer a few bob by knocking it down for free?" grinned Sovershend.
   "They do say there's good in everyone, even 'lensters," laughed the barman.
   Sovershend drifted away to a table opposite the entrance, scanning for familiar faces but failing to find any. A group of casually dressed musicians was checking equipment on the corner stage. One of the guitarists and the drummer were plucking and tapping through a selection of long-dead ‘classics', hurrying from one to the next as if trying to trap the other on unfamiliar ground.
   Sovershend slid onto a bench seat which was upholstered in something soft and red, like the club's lighting. Sprawled comfortably, he lit a Norlish cigarette and wondered when Martin's contact would put in an appearance.
   The room filled up slowly with people and noise. Sovershend's mug was almost empty. Then a smoked plastic mug landed on the table beside his Heitainan crystal. Sovershend glanced up. At first, the newcomer seemed to be a fashionably dressed thirty-year-old. A closer inspection revealed that the man was about fifty and he had been reading too many fashion magazines. Everything that he was wearing was season-new.
   Another old soul trying to recapture a lost youth, thought Sovershend. What the fervoek's he been reading? Looks like Contemporary Spectrum's pastels and one of the chunky, masculine pendants they were advertising in Now Time. Sovershend had glanced through these glossy magazines in his dentist's waiting room.
   The fashion-plate managed to catch a roving waiter's eye and waved him over with a gesture intended to combine casual elegance with authority. Then he looked at Sovershend – and started reflexively when he made unexpected eye contact.
   "Do we have a mutual friend?" Sovershend maintained an interrogative stare.
   "Martin sent me. I'm Sandy," said the stranger. "Two pints of light," he added to the hovering waiter. He had a newsreader's accent and precision of delivery.
   Sovershend pegged Sandy as a spirits drinker, probably marivodka, slumming with the peasants. Sandy seemed interested more in the light show tests than in getting down to business. Then the drinks arrived. The waiter received a blue note and a frigid smile. Sandy dismissed the change with another elegant wave of his hand, most of his attention on the patterns being woven by lasers on a multi-coloured smoke cloud above the stage.
   The waiter gave Sandy a look of utter contempt, which was wasted, then shook his head at Sovershend, Sovershend shrugged, disclaiming all responsibility for someone so obviously out of place. He topped up his personal mug from a fresh mug. He disliked drinking out of plastic.
   At last, Sandy leaned across the table to whisper, "I can use your contacts in Dungard." The general noise level in the room almost drowned his conspiratorial mutter.
   Sovershend took a cigarette-packet-size, yellow and black-striped box from a pocket. He set it on end on the table beside the ashtray. "This is a combined hush screen and jambler," he explained as an unnerving unnoise surrounded them. His words seemed muffled, half swallowed at the edges. "What's the deal?"
   "We're trying something new in the importing line," said Sandy. "We need to plug in to the Dungard distributors. And a contact who doesn't mind travelling." He failed to mention that he was a member of the Duke of Atmain's security staff, just as Charles Demirell had not mentioned that Sovershend would be out of business after the job.
   "Sounds interesting." Sovershend remained cautious. Sandy seemed an unlikely leader of a gang of smugglers. "When does all this come off?"
   "In four days' time." Sandy slipped an envelope round the table. "Here's everything you need to know. Martin ciphered it for your protection."
   Sovershend whistled softly. "Svey yoget! You must be well in with the old sobok."
   "We've done a lot of business recently," nodded Sandy. "And he says we can trust you."
   Sovershend tucked the envelope into an inside pocket. "I hope you know the CustEx are planning to jump on a big load coming in from Belldon around the middle of next week?"
   "They'll be looking in the wrong direction when we arrive from Norland," smiled Sandy.
   "As long as you're not planning to arrive too far south. Have you put details of the size of the job in this?" Sovershend tapped the pocket containing the envelope.
   "I don't think so," said Sandy vaguely.
   "Yoge' vars!" groaned Sovershend, doubts beginning to multiply. "We all have to know that. The distributors will want to know if it's worth their while."
   "Martin always takes everything we bring."
   "You're taking a big step up from Martin to this lot. The Dungard mob get rid of the stuff almost before it's unloaded. They'll need to know how many buyers to invite to the sale. And my introduction will cost you five per cent of the value of the job. I want to know if it's worth my while."
   "Oh! Well, I can tell you the total weight of the shipment," Sandy offered.
   "I have to know the number of cases. A large number, too."
   Sandy shrugged. "The whole object of this run is to establish the method and secure the contacts. You have a number. Vid me there tomorrow at thirteen to let me know what you think of the route. I'll find out the quantity." Sandy drained his mug with a flourish, and tried to rise to his feet in a smooth, flowing movement. He spoiled the elegant effect by catching his foot on one of the table legs.
   The noise of the club surged in with overwhelming force when Sovershend switched off the hush screen. Sandy gave a reflex shudder as he crossed the dividing line between insulated privacy and public uproar. Leaving behind two empty beer mugs and a filling dent in the upholstery, Jules Sandford lounged toward the exit. He had a report to make. Charles Demirell, the Duke of Atmain's principal agent in Camerland, would be pleased to hear that Sovershend was firmly hooked.
   Sovershend remained at the club until twenty-three hours. He ordered an anti-alc when the band disappeared off stage for a quick drink before their encore. Resisting invitations from a group of friends to make a night of it, Sovershend waited the recommended five minutes for the cocktail of enzymes and chemical mops to blot most of the alcohol from his system. Then he reclaimed his car.
   When he left the car stack, the wind was blowing from the north-west, carrying lumpy clouds across the sky and distributing a smell of burning. Sovershend turned onto Barongate Road for a quick nose. All but one of the fire engines had returned to the station on Carton Row. No more than a token scattering of police remained to stop souvenir hunters wandering into the soggy, evil-smelling ruins.
   The last fire engine moved away from the kerb as Sovershend reached the scene of the fire. Deciding that there was nothing to see, he tagged on behind it. Their route to the fire station would take him almost to his doorstep.
   Lights flashing but siren stilled, the firemen raced back for a late snack and the traditional call-out half of fortbeer, which was known as a smoke-cutter in the trade. Since the introduction of this perk, it was often said that firemen made their best times on the way back from a call. Glancing down at a speedometer hovering at the 50 mark, Sovershend decided that it must be true.
   Back at his town castle – the estate agent's description – he poured himself a generous slug of Norland-bottled, Belldon brandy and switched on the cube player. A piece by Egremont began to whisper and rustle all around him, melting from sixteen speakers of various sizes. He crossed to the opposite side of the room. Armed with a wipe-pad and stylus taken from the sideboard, he skated a lounger to within an easy stretch of the drinks cupboard and settled down to translate the contents of Sandy's envelope.
   "Svey yoget!" he remarked aloud and with respect after rechecking the decoded message. "If Sandy thought this one up, he's a brilliant actor."
   Sandy's plan was to transport his shipment down the west coast, up the River Capse and then along the ship canal to Dungard. He required an unloading and distribution point with easy access to an expressway. The methods of transport were not specified, but the timetable for the final stages of the run indicated high speed travel.
   Sovershend rolled over to the videolink. He tapped at the keyboard to call up a detailed map of the Dungard area. After considering it for several thoughtful minutes, he switched to the communications mode and keyed Martin's number.
   "He's not here," said a deep voice from a green-tinted screen. "And I don't know when he'll be back."
   Sovershend ignored the denial. "Well, what about him?"
   "Not what you expected?" Martin switched on his visual circuit to display the enormous grin draped across his wide face.
   "Bockan right!" agreed Sovershend. "He's about your age, but he pretends he's mine. He hasn't got a clue about quantities. But this scheme looks positively brilliant. Who else is he working with?"
   "Never seen them. He's the front man. I deal with him. But I've had no problems at all."
   "But he's so bockan vague about important details."
   "That's him all over," chuckled Martin. "But he must have a good team behind him. You worry too much. Can I get back to my car now?"
   "Are you going to put a blob of paint on your other cheek to balance things up?" Sovershend asked with exaggerated interest.
   Martin rippled his lips in a snarl as he broke the link.
   Somewhat encouraged, Sovershend made a guarded vid call to a Dungard number. By a stroke of luck, the senior partner of the distribution firm was lurking in that particular pub. He agreed to a meeting on the following Monday.
   Swamped by sudden tiredness, Sovershend finished his drink and retired to bed. It had been a successful day, and he had the pleasing prospect of an overpaid job in the offing.

11. The PSF Raid a Refuse Reclamation Centre

The glow-crystal watch on Murphy's right wrist was showing 21:53. He was heartily sick of NeoKirlans. The smug anticipation of fourteen examples of the cult had worn his nerves tissue-paper thin. Less than ten minutes had passed since their strike force had been given the antidote to the time-expansion drug. How anyone could be so cheerful minutes away from a violent death defeated Murphy. The strained smiles on the faces of Denton and the other two members of the PSF Action Cell told him that he was not alone in his revulsion and incomprehension. Only the certain knowledge that the mission was right and necessary kept him in the cramped, basement stockroom in the carpet warehouse.
   When he and his companions attacked the Mirbank Refuse Reclamation Centre, which lay eight feet from the side wall of the warehouse, on the other side of a narrow alley, Old Dunstan would be forced to rethink his security arrangements. And the more money he and his fellow Refuse Barons spent, the more jobs would be created for clever but unemployed people like Murphy and his companions.
   Denton emitted a piercing whistle to bring silence to the stockroom, scattering Murphy's thoughts. "Right, let's go," called the leader of the cell,
   Murphy opened the door and headed for the stairs, grateful to escape from the sickly sweet, cloying, rancid combination of spilt drink, sweat, stale vomit and smoke of various descriptions in the assembly room. He lit a lifter, an ultramild-strength javo, to settle a nervous flutter in his digestive tract. A purposeful clatter followed him up the bare, wooden steps, punctuated by cackles of suppressed glee.
   Denton tugged absently at the straps which held a pack of smoke bombs to his left hip. Tension wound tighter as the assault force checked its weapons and prepared for a mad charge to oblivion.
   "Come on, let's get on with it," urged Murphy.
   Denton twisted the handle of an exploder. Steel-barred windows leapt from their frames to crash into the alley between the warehouse and the reclamation centre. Willing hands heaved ladder bridges across to the roof of Storage Area 2.
   "Kirlan! Kirlan! Kirlaaan!"
   The battle cry of the NeoKirlans tore from every throat as plume-crested warriors hurled themselves across the bridges. Lights flared into brief life. Bursts of automatic fire extinguished them immediately. Shrouded in orange smoke fog, the PSF Action Cell made its way over Packing Area 2, over Sorting Area 3, onto the roofs of Sorting Area 1 and the Line Generator Plant, and finally to the Incinerator Plant.
   After brief skirmishes at the roof access hatches, the centre's security staff retired behind steel doors to await the arrival of the police. They were prepared to repel thieves and vandals, but NeoKirlans were another story. Encouraging sirens could be heard already, approaching at high speed.
   Hugging the rough, gravel surface of the flat roof, the PSF cell stripped away red wrappers. They set shaped charges in a rough circle as their cover force of NeoKirlans poured a concentrated fire into the receiving and transport yards, and the buildings opposite the reclamation centre.
   A violent shudder bounced gravel into the air. Light streamed from a hole in the roof of the incinerator plant, pushing a searchlight beam through the orange smoke haze. Shouts of triumph became screams of agony as a burst of explosive shot ripped through a wind-gusted channel in the smoke. The Code of Kirlan was death and bringing death. A dying NeoKirlan had emptied his magazine at the only visible target – the PSF cell. Then he rolled from the roof of the line generator plant, taking a last dive to the stained concrete of the transport yard.
   Shocked by the deaths of his two friends, Murphy tried to save himself. Sprinting through the thinning smoke-haze, he made the roof of Packing Area 2. Then a police marksman put three rounds through his chest from a glassless, frameless, warehouse window. Left alone, Denton stripped off green wrappers and activated fuses. The lights in the incinerator plant had been extinguished but he could work by touch and a diffuse, angry glow from the transport yard, where a van was burning. Sitting at the jagged edge of the hole in the concrete roof, his feet dangling into space, he dropped what he thought were green smoke bombs into the refuse reclamation centre's incinerator plant.
   He had two smoke bombs left. A round of explosive shot bit a great chunk out of his left arm, throwing him onto his back, out of the line of fire. Shocked numbness spread from the bone-deep crater, pushing away pain but not the heat of a rush of blood. A wave of fire swallowed him. Denton's last thought was one of wonder. He was flying!

12. Mortlake & Pinder with the NTF

A sky full of stars and their own headlights provided the only illumination on the stretch of rural expressway when Gary Mortlake and Neil Pinder had left the service complex behind. Their destination was a ruined and abandoned village called Axgard. It lay two miles ahead, buried in a mass of woodland which resembled an inverted boot on their large-scale map of Neal county. They were over 200 miles south of their meeting point with the PSF the previous afternoon.
   "Bockan waste of time, this trip," Pinder thought for the umpteenth time.
   "What?" grunted Mortlake from the passenger seat of their blue Rutland Explorer van.
   Pinder realized that he had been thinking aloud. "This," he growled. "Getting the National yogan Temperance Front into the act. If we want to stop this Ambrose of Nottridge landing smuggle on the coast around here, what's wrong with an anonymous vid call to the CustEx?"
   "Vr. Demirell, our peerless leader, doesn't approve of the NTF," explained Mortlake patiently. "Not their opposition to the demon drink, or their idea that smoking javon is an acceptable substitute."
   "I know," said Pinder with equal patience. "But I still think it's a liberty, Charlie using the Duke's protection racket to work off his own personal prejudices."
   "Charlie, is it?" laughed Mortlake. "Bet you wouldn't dare call him that to his face. Which is the big advantage of being the field commander. No one tells you what to do. As long as the Duke thinks the sun shines out his porthole, he'll get away with anything." He leaned forward until his ample nose reached the windscreen. "We should be near the turn-off now."
   Tall, straight trees raised walls of blackness on either side of the expressway. Pinder slackened their speed as a faint luminosity signalled the presence of white marker stones at a break in the central reservation. A sign demanding that no turns be made at this convenient spot flashed into brilliant light as the van arced toward it. Pinder ignored the order. It was very late, both carriageways were clear and the area was not one favoured by lurking police patrols.
   The van crossed the hard shoulder of the westbound carriage-way and lurched over a flattened, roadside fence of railway sleepers. Although made redundant by concrete over a dozen years earlier, the preservatives had kept them solid enough to jolt the van up and down.
   An uneven track, seasoned liberally with potholes where undermined tarmac had slumped, twisted toward a sizeable clearing in the southern wood. According to the map, the estuary of the River Barton and Shear Island lay five miles due north of the van's position.
   Headlights splashed tumble-down buildings, pavements turned to rockeries by up-thrusting grass and weeds, and then a car. Most of the vehicle was a brownish-yellow Deforest, to which had been grafted the front end of a maroon and rust Panther. Pinder braked to a smooth stop. A torch flashed toward the van, sliding a strong, white beam across the dusty, mid-blue bonnet three times. Mortlake counted to ten in muttered Belldan. The torch flashed twice more. After another count of ten, Pinder turned the van's light on and off four times.
   "All right, enough of playing bockan spies," said Mortlake. "Let's go and natter with a bunch of nuts."
   Pinder switched the engine off. A howl from somewhere not too distant made the hairs on the back of his neck stand to attention. "Dog pack!" he muttered, sliding a Noiseless from his shoulder holster to check that the clip was full.
   "What d'you expect?" said Mortlake casually. He slipped a spare magazine for his machine pistol into each of the side pockets of his coveret, then looped the carrying sling of his weapon over his left shoulder. "Make sure you don't point that thing at our friends. They might just get the wrong impression."
   "I know what I'm doing," snarled Pinder as he holstered the Noiseless. He was strictly a townie. Expeditions into the countryside made him nervous, especially at night. The hours of darkness, he believed, were ideally spent within the shelter of the solid walls of the Duke of Atmain's castle. It was only his inability to make as much money any other way that made him expose his precious life to nocturnal dangers from unknown directions.
   "Don't forget to smile." Mortlake opened his door and stepped out into the dancing beam of the torch held by the approaching dark shape.
   "Welcome. My name is Dudley. Did you have much trouble finding us?" Their National Temperance Front contact turned out to be a man with a young voice which was screened through by a mass of facial hair. His large, round spectacles caught reflections from scratches on the van's windscreen.
   "No, no problems," said Mortlake cheerfully. "I'm Marshall. This is Parker."
   "Pleased to meet you." Dudley nodded to Pinder. "Let's go and join the others. Watch where you're treading. The dogs, you know." He led the visitors along a street of gaping, glassless windows.
   "Do you have much trouble from dogs?" said Pinder nervously, planting his feet only in areas swept by his torch.
   "More than average, I suppose, living out here." Dudley replied over his shoulder. "We've tried various repellents, but the ones that work best are either too expensive or toxic, or they're people-repellents too. We have a purge every so often. When we go out and shoot every dog we can find. But they always come back."
   "What's around here to attract them?" said Pinder. "I'd have thought they'd get the message and go somewhere safer."
   "It's the rabbits," said Dudley. "The little soboks can't resist a nibble at our crop, and the dogs can catch them easily when their tiny brains are in outer space."
   "Rabbits eat your stone-plants?" said Mortlake incredulously. "Now I've heard everything."
   "I got a shock myself when I saw them doing it," said Dudley. "And it was a bit of a relief, too. We thought we had an exotic form of leaf-rot. Mind the step up." He clicked a latch and opened to door to the solid green twilight of two yards of hall.
   Dudley made sure that the outer door was closed before pulling aside the light-trap blanket. The room was bright and clean. Every surface had been painted white – including the simple furniture and the sheets of hardboard over the windows. The whole room, apart from the grey-cast floor of painted boards, glowed with a living luminosity.
   A man and a woman were waiting for the visitors, sitting in armchairs made of white-painted, quadruple-ply cardboard and upholstered in some bulky, white, furry material, which made Mortlake think of rabbit tails. Both Lawsonites in the house were wearing knee-length, frost-blue shorts and a plain cotton shirt. Dudley's night outfit was hole-black shorts and an ancient flame shirt, which could manage only the occasional swirl of dark green iridescence despite the almost painful light level.
   "Sutton and Larne." Dudley indicated the man and the woman in that order. "Our visitors are Parker and Marshall."
   As he shook their hands, Mortlake tried to decide whether the NTF representatives were disguised. Sutton was clean-shaven above his eyebrows, but he sported a monstrous, bushy beard in fiery ginger. He was big, well above average height, with an impressive physique to bulge his light, summer evening garments.
   Larne, in contrast, was small and lightly built. Long, black hair, an impressive suntan and bizarre make-up made forming an accurate picture of her features virtually impossible. Dudley also had a bushy beard, his oversize glasses and long, black hair hanging straight down.
   The visitors were fairly anonymous in their dark coverets and trousers. Mortlake sported a blond froth of moustache to draw some attention from his distinctive nose. Pinder's eye-attractant was a bad case of plastic acne at his jawline.
   "Shall we get started?" said Dudley in a business-like tone. The midnight film on holovision started in three-quarters of an hour. He wanted everything out of the way by then.
   All five pulled cardboard chairs up to a white, cardboard table. A volcanic glass ashtray formed the centrepiece. Mortlake and Pinder sat cautiously, discovering that the padded cardboard could be surprisingly comfortable and secure.
   "Would you like to try some of our local product?" Sutton half-rose from his chair in anticipation. His deep and powerful voice sounded as if it had been trained for the professional stage.
   "Sure, why not," nodded Mortlake.
   Sutton lofted endlessly to his full height and found a white cupboard on the white window wall. Given the brilliant, shadowless lighting, Mortlake decided that it was a major achievement.
   "These are just lifters." Sutton popped the plastic lid off a one-pound synth-café tin to reveal tightly packed, yellow peaks of cigarette paper.
   "Could I have something to drink, please?" Pinder said as he helped himself to a javo. "These things always dry my throat out. It's a bit of a gasper out, tonight."
   "Promising a long summer," said Larne optimistically.
   She disappeared through an almost invisible door. Dudley offered his lighter, The smell of aromatic, herbal tobacco and burning haystacks filled the air. A rattling of ice-cubes heralded Lame's return with a frosting jug of home-made lemonade and a stack of plastic beakers.
   "Right, what have you got for us?" said Dudley briskly.
   Mortlake unfolded part of a map of Neal county. The Duke of Atmain's men were posing as sympathizers rather than active members of the National Temperance Front.
   "As far as we can tell, it's not Ambrose Mellbury making this run, it's Bekker, his second in command." Mortlake tapped a pencil cross on the coast, about twenty-five miles to the east of the ruins of Axgard. The landing site was a promontory some fifteen miles below the Barton estuary, very close to two villages which operated coastal fishing vessels. "Our information is he'll be landing here about two in the morning on Wednesday the twenty-fourth."
   "We heard Thursday," remarked Sutton. "And further south, towards the other arm of the bay."
   "Very probably," said Mortlake. "They always spread plenty of rumours to confuse the issue. There's going to be five motor launches all together. That's from someone actually inside Mellbury's organization."
   "How many men all together?" said Lame, impressed by the quality of the Intelligence information.
   "Four men to a crew. And eight to ten on shore at any given time. The pick-up lorries are on a staggered schedule. You'll have to watch that when you get going. We don't want anything to get away, do we?"
   "Right," agreed Sutton, nodding his tanned dome.
   "It'll be a real pleasure, hitting that sobok Mellbury." Larne contorted her bizarre make-up into a malevolent smile.
   Ambrose Mellbury of Nottridge was well liked by most of his associates, his wife Lillith included, but his extrovert nature and the sheer delight that he took in smuggling dutiable goods past agents of His Camerlish Majesty's Customs and Excise infuriated rivals and opponents alike. Although many people spent sleepless nights trying to think of ways to do him down, Ambrose also had an infuriating knack of remaining one step ahead of trouble. But with solid inside information, the National Temperance Front was hoping for success for once.
   "We've marked the routes the lorries will be taking to approach and leave the landing area," continued Mortlake. "And there's a timetable on the back. It should be pretty accurate. I hope you can do the rest."
   "Oh, yes," nodded Dudley confidently. "They won't get away with it this time."
   "Good!" said Mortlake cheerfully, flicking ash into the gleaming, black ashtray. "You're going to make a lot of people very happy when you stomp on Ambrose's number two."
   "Pity it's not the man himself," said Larne. "You know, we would have come to where you are for information as good as this."
   "That's all right," smiled Mortlake. "We had to be in the area anyway."
   He and Pinder had just dropped off a supply of small sabotage charges for the local branch of the Popular Socialist Front.
   Pinder glanced at his watch. "We'd better get moving. It's gone half twenty-three."
   "I feel we one you something," insisted Dudley.
   "Oh, forget it," said Mortlake modestly. "A good job by you on Wednesday is reward enough."
   "How about something for later on?" Sutton produced another synth-café tin from the supply cupboard. "These are quite a bit stronger than the lifters."
   "Thanks very much," said Pinder before Mortlake could open his mouth. With the tin stuffed into the side pocket of his midnight blue coveret, he looked as if he had an enormous growth on his hip.
   The night was soft starlight struggling against monstrous green and deep blue after-images when Mortlake and Pinder left the house with Dudley. Following pools of torchlight, they made for their van. The isolation conveyed by the sheltering, surrounding woodland made the crumbling village seem even more unnaturally quiet. Even the footsteps on broken pavements sounded oddly muted in the warm, still air.
   "Nice night," remarked Mortlake.
   "They say it's going to be a scorcher of a summer when it gets going," said Dudley. "We're well into that sort of a weather pattern, going from past experience."
   "What's that?" whispered Pinder urgently, his ears straining to locate an ominous slither.
   "What's what?" said Mortlake with total unconcern.
   Before Pinder could reply, a silver-grey streak flew from the empty blackness of a window – straight at him. He fell on his left side and his holster, yelling in terror, a bristling hound snapping at his throat. Snarling battle cries, dogs of all sizes and breeds massed into the torch beams, eyes glowing, teeth bared. Mortlake took a chance with Pinder's life to fire a three-round burst. The dog rolled away, screaming and dragging a broken leg. Attracted by the smell of hot blood, several of the pack swung to attack it.
   Pinder crawled to join Mortlake and Dudley. Backs to a solid wall, they were kicking and firing at the enraged horde. Nerve-shattering shrieks filled their ears, drowning their shots. Then an angry hammering began behind the beleaguered trio.
   Red tracers squirted from the heavy machine gun mounted at an upper window of the NTF's communal house. Twin searchlights flooded the street with hard brilliance. Blood-smeared survivors of the canine assault force retreated into the night. The machine gun continued to slash at the remaining dogs, finishing off the wounded.
   Slumped in a sitting position against the wall of a ruined house, Neil Pinder realized that he was pulling the trigger of an empty pistol. When he tried to reload, he found that he had fired off both spare magazines.
   "Fervoek!" he gasped, his mouth desert-dry, heart pounding a hole in his chest. "I think I need a..."
   Mortlake nudged him with a warning foot before he could mention drink in the presence of members of the NTF.
   "A laundry that's not too fussy," Pinder finished, almost without a pause.
   "I'm with you there," said Dudley in a strained voice. "Everyone all right?"
   "Just about." Mortlake put a round through the head of a huge dog, which may or may not have moved.
   "Still alive down there?" boomed Sutton's voice from first-floor level.
   "Somehow," called Dudley. "Good shooting."
   "We aim to please," laughed Sutton.
   Dudley released a piteous groan. "If the dogs don't get you, his rotten jokes will."
   "We'd better get moving," said Mortlake. "Before they come back with some friends."
   "I think another purge is overdue," nodded Dudley. "Are your rabies shots up to date?"
   "Yogast, I hope so!" muttered Pinder.
   "Drive carefully," added Dudley.
   Mortlake and Pinder picked their way over the carcases, trying not to step into the sticky ocean between them. In the bouncing torchlight, it was hard to believe that the dogs were not sleeping, ready to wake and tear them to pieces at any moment. Mortlake took the wheel of the van. He waved a salute to the National Temperance Front commune, then he reversed and rolled down the track to the expressway.
   No other vehicles were visible in either direction. The van lurched across the fallen sleeper-fence, and crossed to the eastbound carriageway. Mortlake was safely up to a respectable speed before a Traffic patrol vehicle came into view. The yellow-striped, Short scout car stormed past on the opposite carriageway and disappeared into a corner.
   Neil Pinder pulled a bottle from the dashboard locker with a surprisingly steady hand and took a good drink. "Yogar! I needed that!" he gasped.
   "Sure our friends can't see us?" mocked Mortlake, holding out a hand for the bottle.
   "Yog' them," scoffed Pinder. "But those ganar dogs! And to think, people keep the soboks as pets."
   "Ah, yes," Mortlake returned the bottle. "But they've got a veneer of civilization. Not like country dogs."
   "You don't have to tell me that!" Pinder took another swig from the bottle. "I'll never go near a dog again without some body armour. They're bockan strong, you know."
   "Don't forget the danger money."
   "No one told me the danger would be so dangerous." Pinder offered the bottle again. Mortlake refused it with a shake of his head. Pinder put the bottle away again. "Still, we got a whole stak of home-grown javon out of it."
   "Priyam!" agreed Mortlake. "You know, they're quite human for a bunch of yadren. You think they're going to be fanatics about the whole ecology and healthy living movement."
   "I was surprised to hear them talking about shooting dogs like vermin. Until we found out their survival depends on it."
   "Me, too. Where they go wrong is their name. When you say National Temperance Front, it's the Front that sticks in your mind. And that means trouble to most people. Like the Popular Socialist Front. If you don't agree with those soboks, you're liable to get shot, blown up, or if you're very lucky, just beaten to a pulp. All the NTF do is hold you down, pour your booze away and stick a javo in your gob."
   "The NTF are just as bad in their own way," said Pinder. "No matter what their medical evidence shows, swapping booze for the noble stone-plant is cutting down choices."
   "Still, as long as they jump all over Ambrose's maccar in the name of temperance, Charlie will be happy. And our revered lord and master, the Duke."
   "Ganar sobok," muttered Pinder. "I bet Charlie's never had to fight for his life against a million starving dogs."
   "Not unless some woman's husband set the dogs on him."
   Mortlake enjoyed the thought as the outskirts of Berrich began to drift past. Another CSP patrol car screamed past them in an impressive display of flashing lights and wailing siren. Mortlake wondered idly whether someone had reported all the shooting at the commune. Sound travels surprising distances on a still night.
   "Next right, and it's on the left," said Pinder.
   "Right, got it," nodded Mortlake.
   He slowed down and made the turn, attracting a stare from a pair of CSP Auxiliaries, who were lurking in a doorway, enjoying a quiet smoke. The van bumped across the pavement and through an archway into a small courtyard. Mortlake parked in a gap between two cars. He locked the van, then followed Pinder to the steel door in the opposite corner of the courtyard.
   Illumination just stronger than summer twilight faded as they entered the building. The dim light was designed to allow visitors to move around the courtyard without bumping into anything, yet not attract the attention of passers-by in the street. Uncarpeted wooden stairs led up to another steel door. Mortlake and Pinder stepped into a normal room. The only item painted white was the window frame, which was hidden by orange curtains.
   "How did it go?" called a female voice, speaking Ferran with a faint Belldan accent.
   "We nearly got eaten by bockan dogs," complained Pinder, throwing his blood-stained coveret at one of the dining chairs. "Any food going?" Danger always left him feeling ravenous as an assurance that he was still alive.
   Louise Liston pushed backwards through the swing door from the kitchen and turned to reveal a well-stocked cheese board and a coffee pot.
   "Some poodle look at you, Neil?" she scoffed. When she had deposited her load on the table, she looked patiently at Pinder. Her eyes widened in horror when she spotted the dark splashes on his shirt. "Are you hurt? Neil? Gary?"
   "We're bloody but unharmed," Mortlake assured her. "You should have seen the dogs, though."
   Pinder gave a hollow laugh as he retired to his room in search of clean clothes. Mortlake investigated the dishes on the table, then the coffee pot.
   "Real coffee, eh? Things are looking up."
   "A small celebration in anticipation," said Liston. "So it's all set now?"
   "The NTF will jump all over Bekker like performing dogs. Bad choice of words, that. Tell you who I feel sorry for, though. That kerel Sandy's got working for him. Sovershend. He's going to get the blame for setting Bekker up."
   "How can you feel sorry for someone you don't know?" Pinder called from his room. "He might be a proper sobok. He might deserve everything that's coming to him."
   "You're not exactly overflowing with love for your fellow creatures, are you, Neil?" laughed Liston. "Come here and let me get rid of that revolting mess on your face."
   Pinder, in a dressing gown, allowed her to strip plastic acne from his chin on the way to the bathroom.
   "Demirell promised us a bonus when this operation's over, Liston added.
   She reminded Mortlake of a bullet. It was a combination of her dark grey hair, dumpy figure and the long, bronze-fibre dress that she liked. Her face was smooth and plump, and not unattractive after a time. She looked more like a farmer's wife than a useful organizer on a security team. Mortlake preferred his women slimmer, under thirty and much less dangerous. Neither Mortlake nor the grumbling Pinder came close to Liston's vision of her ideal male, so their relationships remained without effort on a strictly professional level.
   "We've got a bonus already," Mortlake remarked as he popped the plastic lid from the synth-café tin, which Pinder had left on the table.
   "Well done." Liston smiled approval at the tightly packed javon. "I'd better report in before I try one. You know how much Charles disapproves of smoking those things."
   "Sobokander kerel," drifted out of the bathroom.
   "Tex Bleiler and I have got a competition going," said Mortlake. "Devising strange and terrible ways of finishing off Charlie Demirell."
   "That sounds fun." Liston gave him a smile of maternal tolerance, looking down from an age advantage of six years.
   Mortlake touched his lighter to a javo, inhaled deeply and returned a beam of pure contentment. "The NTF have got a point. The world looks a whole lot better when you light one of these. Your coffee's going cold, Lulu,"
   Liston took her mug into the kitchen to make a quick videolink call to a minor Refuse Reclamation Centre on the outskirts of the coastal town of Duddling. She quite liked Charles Demirell. He was a good field commander, in her opinion. He also commanded loyalty and rewarded that quality generously, and he was always ready to show his appreciation of a job well done. The Ice Queen, as her staff called Ilse Dortmann, the Duke of Atmain's security executive, was not so free with bonuses.
   But, Liston admitted, being fair, Dortmann's budget was much more tightly controlled than Demirell's. And she didn't have a large and untraceable income from smuggling to distribute to the troops. And she didn't have the freedom to be pally with staff sharing common, illegal dangers. Dortmann was Vreitan Correct And By The Book. Which was why Charles was in charge in Camerland and making such a good job of it.

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